27 July 2006

Superman: the 2nd Coming

Today marked the official end of my summer. I attended a three-hour teachers' workshop this morning. In the afternoon I cut my hair (I had the real Surfer Dude look going, and I was constantly having to swipe the hair out of my eyes, if you can believe it).

I also watched a movie I plan to use in my British Literature classes this fall: Superman Returns. It's been eight years since I've taught senior English. I was reviewing my old notes last month, and I noticed that the first half of the class is heavy on ancient heroes like Beowulf and Gawain. I try to get students to make connections between the heroes of old and those of today. The fact is that you can tell a lot about a civilization if you can figure out two things: its hopes and its fears.

For example, when I was a teenager, my heroes were Pete Rose and Al Gore, Jr. That probably says a lot about me--more than I might want to reveal in other ways.

The upcoming unit gave me an excuse to go see Superman Returns. It was a purely literary exercise, I assure you. I may have seen snippets of the eighties Superman films, but I had never been a big fan, nor had I read the comic books. This was a movie I saw based on two reviews, one found in the New York Times and another by my favorite Christian singer, Andrew Peterson. Both reviews pointed out the religious iconography of the film, and Peterson even repeated the rumor that it could be called "The Passion of the Superman."

The movie was right up my alley--which means that it was probably doomed as a blockbuster. I'm a God-stalker, who loves scouring pop culture for inadvertent references to Jesus Christ. This movie was chock full of them. Since Jesus Christ is another hero of mine, that means that Superman is now my hero, too, right? Not quite.

The conflict of the film deals with Superman's return after a five-year absence to search for signs of his doomed planet Krypton. In his absence, Lois Lane has had a baby and moved in with a male colleague. Lex Luthor has gotten out of jail on a technicality and restored his fortune. During Superman's absence, Lois has soothed her broken heart by composing a Pulitzer-prizewinning essay entitled, "Why the World Doesn't Need a Superman."

In my mind, then, the primary conflict is between Superman and Lane. Does she still love him? Does she know how he feels about her (we understand this because of Clark Kent's clumsy efforts at romance, but she is oblivious, only her son has an inkling)?

At the end of the 2nd Act, Superman reveals himself to Lois Lane in the form of an exclusive interview (a la the Transfiguration). Soaring high above Metropolis, Lane insists, "The world doesn't even need a savior anymore."

Superman, the cries of thousands of people below echoing in his ears, replies. "From what I hear, they still do."

Indeed, by the end of the movie, Lois types a question that resounds outside of the movie: "Why Does the World Need Superman?"

Why does the world need a savior? Why did Britain of the Dark Ages need a Beowulf--or an Arthur in the Middle Ages. Why did teenage JD need Pete Rose of all heroes?

The one question the movie doesn't bother to ask is this: 'from what does the world need saving?' Lex Luthor is an anachronism, really, a relic of the 1930s and 40s when fascist madmen dreamed of world domination. His sadistic plan is to create a New Jerusalem-style island off the eastern coast of the United States. There are no terrorists, no nuclear weapons. A cool tsunami is about the only nod to recent catastrophes.

In a religious sense, then, this movie left me feeling a little empty. The line, "I will always be there for you," pops up several times in the movie, aping Christ's "I will never leave you or forsake you." There is some mention of a Son being one with the Father at the end. But in the end, the movie cannot bridge the concept of Superhero with Redeemer. Superman can save a plane from crashing into a crowded baseball stadium, and he can save the world from falling from the top of the Daily Planet building. He can mend Lois's broken heart. But he can only do these things by himself. He can save the citizens of Metropolis from disaster, but he cannot save their souls. He can leave nothing behind that gives them some measure of his power, as Christ did with us.

The limits of Superman are where Christ begins in the believer's life. Like Superman, Christ crashed into earth in a giant blaze of light, where he was raised by an adopted mother who struggled to understand his powers. He performed many whiz-bang-type deeds, yet he struggled with this alien planet, laced with deadly sin (kryptonite). Then he was resurrected, impermeable. (My favorite religious image of the movie mirrors the resurrection, as Superman rises into the heavens, bathed in golden light, until he finds himself in the direct glare of the sun, from which he gains the energy to fight Lex Luthor a final time.)

But when Jesus left us, He left something behind. For one, he left the Gospel of a life well lived and wonderfully sacrificed. For another, he left his Spirit behind, through which the superpowers that he displayed can be made evident in our own experience. He mends broken hearts with more than an embrace and a cruise above the city--he mends them with his own ever-present, boundless love.

I can't complete a commentary on the movie without mentioning a few critical things. Brandon Roush was a fair Superman. I like his performance. Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey left a lot to be desired. As the Mary Magdalene figure, Bosworth is completely beautiful. In the soft light, her dark hair and eyes remind me of Ingrid Bergmann in "Casablanca." But she isn't persuasive as a mother, and her size 1/2 body is emaciated to the point of ugliness. At one point, I found myself thinking, "Lois Lane has no butt!"

Kevin Spacey has played the same guy in just about every movie I've seen him in since "Se7en." Sure, he's intense, but Lex Luthor was basically the same guy as the alien in "K-Pax" or the heavy in "Se7en." I missed his Oscar-winning turn in "American Beauty," and I missed "The Usual Suspects" and "The Bobby Darin Story" (which also had Bosworth), so maybe he does have some chops I haven't seen over and over and over again. I hope you'll let me know on this one.

Superman Returns is a pleasant, if unfulfilling, way to spend a summer afternoon. The special effects are great, the iconography is thought-provoking. Does the world need to pay $6 to watch Superman? I think it does.


Brian A. said...

I'm sure the "Surfer Dude" look was quite becoming.

You decided to use a movie in class before you had even seen it?

JD said...

I won't be able to "use" the movie in class this year, because it won't be on DVD or anything. I wanted to be able to reference a superhero from 2006.

I mean, I could stand up there and say, "Do you guys like Indiana Jones...anyone?" But that would be a waste of time, since my students were born the year the last IJ movie came out. I'm just trying to stay hip: with the hair, with the flicks.

Brian A. said...

JD: You embody hipness. 8^)

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